Last week, the state Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Justice Annette Ziegler for ruling on cases involving a bank without disclosing that her husband served on its board. Ziegler's "bright-line" violation of judicial ethics, the court said, was "serious," "willful" and "inexcusable."
The court then proceeded to excuse Ziegler's behavior by deeming her willful violation "inadvertent." It quoted Ziegler's explanation that "she simply did not consider that her sitting on cases involving West Bend Savings Bank was a conflict of interests" because the bank, in her words, "is not how we make our money."
Indeed, the decision stated, Ziegler's husband "viewed his position on [the board] as a public service to the West Bend community." It also noted that J.J. Ziegler (yep, the guy goes by his initials), like other board members, received "a flat fee of $20,000 a year" for this service.
Gosh, that sure puts me in a givin' mood.
"Dear West Bend Savings Bank:
"Good news. After years of essentially selfish living, I feel a need to give something back to the community. Hence, I will accept a position on your board of directors, at your standard rate. No need to thank me. Just let me know when your quarterly meetings are scheduled and I'll try to attend. Please start sending the checks right away.
"Sincerely, Bill Lueders."
Also, from now on, I will expect to be paid for any volunteer work I do. Isn't that how public service is supposed to work?
Obviously, the state's highest court has no qualms about accepting a different standard for the rich and powerful than for other citizens. To do so would be to cross swords with reality.
The court, in like vein, noted Ziegler's "repeated assertion that [she] forthrightly admitted her misconduct in closed sessions before the Judicial Commission," calling this both "one of [her] strongest arguments for mitigation" and "not supported by the record." The court was especially unconvinced that any such admissions or apologies were made prior to Ziegler's April 2007 election.
In other words, the court admitted it had no proof of this pivotal assertion. No matter. The majority opinion noted that Ziegler's election took place "more than a year ago." Thus, "It is time to conclude this matter for the sake of Justice Ziegler and the Judicial Commission, this court and the people of the State."
The court's pretzel logic drew a dissent from Justice Louis Butler, perhaps not coincidentally the only member of the court who can't be ousted more-or-less at will by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (because he already has been).
"I respectfully disagree that at the one-year mark a case has become no longer worthy of ensuring the adequate evidentiary safeguards and factual foundation as required in any other case that comes before us," he wrote.
Actually, one year is not an especially huge wait for a legal proceeding. And it only took this long because the Supremes spent five months deciding to rubberstamp the recommendation of a Judicial Commission panel.
Obviously, one way to clear up the court's confusion over whether Ziegler "forthrightly admitted her misconduct" prior to the election would be to ask her. Here I thought I was in luck, because last December, when I was preparing a column entitled "In Defense of Annette Ziegler (1/4/08)," the good justice agreed to talk to me about her travails, once the disciplinary proceedings against her had concluded. She emailed an intermediary: "Tell him I will sit down with him when this is all over."
Last week, when I tried to follow through, I was curtly informed by court spokesman Tom Sheehan that Justice Ziegler's written statement on the affair "is the extent of information that will be available."
And what a statement it was! - enough to make me regret my earlier defense. Yes, the charges against Ziegler have been overblown by critics who (boo freaking hoo) dislike her conservative leanings. And yes, Ziegler - unlike WMC's latest purchase, Mike Gableman - has the experience and intellect to merit being on the court.
But when it mattered most, Annette Ziegler showed she and Gableman share the same profound deficit of moral character. Her statement, in its entirety:
"I am pleased that the Supreme Court, the Judicial Conduct Panel and the Wisconsin Judicial Commission have all now confirmed that the mistake I made was inadvertent, that neither myself not anyone in my family benefited financially from my participation in the cases and the cases were decided as they would have been by any other judge.
"I appreciate that this matter is now concluded. I look forward to continuing to serve the people of Wisconsin."
Jeez, Annette. Thanks for not overburdening your argument with extraneous details - like, for instance, that your colleagues on the court also deemed your misconduct "serious," "willful," "inexcusable" and said it "diminishes public confidence in the legal system."
And, beyond your offhand reference to an unspecified "mistake," where in this statement is there any acknowledgement that you did anything to deserve becoming the first sitting justice in Wisconsin history to be disciplined? Where do you show the contrition that the court felt was so essential to mitigating against a harsher penalty? If a criminal defendant were so openly boastful and unrepentant at sentencing, what do you suppose most judges would do?
But of course, a state Supreme Court justice is not subject to the same standards as other citizens. They serve not the people of Wisconsin but the interest groups that put them in office. The only thing about being a justice that makes it public service is the paycheck.